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Got a weight loss goal you’re trying to reach? If you’re trying to drop some pounds, you might have heard that it’s worth trying to exercise in the mystical ~fat-burning zone~.

But what is that, exactly? And more importantly, how do you know if you’re in the sweet spot? Let’s break it down.

Your target heart rate is the number of times your heart should beat per minute to ensure your heart is getting exercise without being overworked. Sticking with that rate also means you’re moving at a pace that’ll promote calorie burning and help you lose weight.

“Fat-burning heart rate” is a bit of a misnomer, though.

Your body will burn fat or carbohydrates for energy during physical activity, depending on how hard you’re working. Exercising at a moderate pace, with your heart rate slightly elevated, burns more calories from fat. Crank it up to a vigorous, heart-pounding pace and your body eventually switches to burning more calories from carbs.

Staying in the fat-burning zone might sound like your best bet if you’re trying to lose weight. But the fact is, it doesn’t matter if the cals you burn through exercise come from fat or carbs. You just need to burn calories, period.

So, what heart rate should you target to ensure you’re working hard enough to reap the benefits of exercise? For weight loss and overall health, you need to exercise at a moderate pace for at least 150 minutes per week or a vigorous pace for at least 75 minutes per week.

  • To exercise at a moderate pace, aim for 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate.
  • To exercise at a vigorous pace, aim for 70 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate.

Figuring out your target heart rate is easy and takes just a few steps. Grab a calculator and let’s get started.

  1. Determine your maximum heart rate. This is the average max number of times your heart should beat per minute during exercise. Calculate it by subtracting your age from 220. If you’re 30, your max heart rate would be 190 beats per minute (bpm).
  2. Determine your resting heart rate. This is just how many times your heart beats per minute when you’re totally at rest, like when you first wake up. (For most people, it’s between 60 and 100 bpm.) Just take your pulse for a full minute — that’s your resting heart rate.
  3. Determine your heart rate reserve by subtracting your resting heart rate from your maximum heart rate. If your max heart rate is 190 bpm and your resting heart rate is 60, your heart rate reserve is 130.
  4. To find your average target heart rate range for moderate exercise, multiply your heart rate reserve by 0.5 and 0.7 and add your resting heart rate to both numbers. If your heart rate reserve is 130 bpm, your target heart rate for moderate exercise is between 125 and 151.
  5. To find your average target heart rate range for vigorous exercise, multiply your heart rate reserve by 0.7 and 0.85 and add your resting heart rate to both numbers. If your heart rate reserve is 130 bpm, your target heart rate for moderate exercise is between 151 and 170.

To see if you’re within your target heart rate range when you’re working out, take a quick break to check your pulse for 15 seconds and multiply that number by 4. (Stopping for a full minute will slow down your heart, so you won’t get an accurate number.)

If it’s below your desired range, that means you need to bump up the intensity a little bit. If it’s above your desired range, slow down.

Do calculations differ for women and men?

Women’s and men’s hearts respond a little differently to exercise, so there are slightly different calculations to find the precise target heart rate for women versus men.

But experts say those variations are only really useful for elite athletes who are looking to get super specific. Casual exercisers can stick to using the same basic target heart rate calculation.

Don’t feel like pulling out the calculator — or want to check the math you just did? Here’s a general idea of what your target heart rate should look like for moderate or vigorous exercise, based on your age.

AgeFat-burning heart rate (in bpm) for moderate exerciseFat-burning heart rate (in bpm) for vigorous exercise
20100–140140–170
3095–133133–162
3593–129129–157
4090–126 126–153
4588–122122–149
5085–119119–145
5583–115115–140
6080–112112–136
6578–108108–132

If you’re not into crunching numbers, you’ve got other options for figuring out whether you’re moving at the right intensity.

Pay attention to how you feel

Checking in with your body is an easy — but less precise — way to see if you’re on the right track.

If you’re working out at a moderate pace, you should be breathing faster but not be out of breath. You should be able to talk but not sing, and you’ll likely start to sweat after about 10 minutes.

If you’re working out at a vigorous pace, you should be breathing fast and hard and shouldn’t be able to say more than a few words at a time. You’ll also start to sweat within a few minutes.

Use an activity tracker with a heart rate monitor

Watches and heart rate monitors that strap around your chest can both get the job done, so pick what’s most comfortable for you.

But keep in mind: Even though these devices can be high-tech, they’re not always 100 percent accurate. Take their numbers as a ballpark estimate.

Ultimately, exercising at 70 to 85 percent of your target heart rate will help you burn more calories, allowing you to reach your weight loss goal faster. Still, any type of physical activity that raises your heart rate will help you burn calories and lose fat, provided you’re also taking steps to eat healthfully.

Moderate workouts that’ll get you to 50 to 70 percent of your max target heart rate are things like:

  • brisk walking
  • biking at a leisurely pace
  • dancing
  • gardening
  • playing doubles tennis

Vigorous workouts that’ll get you to 70 to 85 percent of your max target heart rate:

  • running
  • hiking uphill with a heavy backpack
  • swimming laps
  • biking at a speedy pace (10 mph or faster)
  • heavy yard work
  • jumping rope
  • playing singles tennis